Denton: Dwight Howard Front and Center

By John Denton
December 7, 2011

ORLANDO – The Orlando Magic made changes with their leadership on Tuesday, promoting Alex Martins to CEO to replace the retiring Bob Vander Weide. But one thing that hasn’t changed is the Magic’s awareness of how important superstar center Dwight Howard is to the future of the franchise.

Howard, the only player in NBA history to win the Defensive Player of the Year award three consecutive years, can become a free agent following this season. The four-time first-team All-NBA center is expected to be the top prize next summer in a free-agent class that should also include New Orleans’ point guard Chris Paul and New Jersey’s Deron Williams.

The Magic have long since started the process of attempting to retain Howard long term. Howard flew to Grand Rapids, Mich., last summer prior to the lockout to meet with long-time owner Rich DeVos and then-CEO Bob Vander Weide. Howard has since met with GM Otis Smith to talk about his future with the team, one the Magic are hopeful will continue in Orlando for years to come.

Vander Weide said on Tuesday one of the major keys in retaining Howard for the long term is continuing to improve the roster around him. The Magic have historically been willing spenders when it comes to upgrading their roster and they had the league’s second-highest payroll last season at $89 million.

``We started the process before the lockout by bringing him up to Grand Rapids where he sat with Rich and we continued to convey that we’ve built this thing around him. We have a great market in Orlando, and we want to continue to improve the team,’’ Vander Weide said. ``We feel like we know where Dwight’s head is right now and we’re going to continue to move this championship forward toward trying to win championships.’’

Martins, who has been with the Magic organization for nearly 20 years in various capacities, knows the value of keeping a star player the caliber of Howard on the roster. The Magic are the only franchise Howard has ever played for, getting selected with the first overall pick in 2004 and spending the past seven seasons in Orlando. Martins said the Magic’s leadership groups have tried to stress to Howard that his future is best served by remaining an iconic fixture in Orlando.

``Our goal remains the same – we love Dwight and we want Dwight to continue to be the cornerstone of our franchise. We’re continuing to talk to him about that,’’ Martins said. ``We’ve built a championship-caliber organization here that he can be proud to play for and play in front of the best fans in the best arena in the world. We believe this is the right home for Dwight and we’ll continue to talk to him about making this his home.’’

Dan DeVos, now the chairman of the team and the Magic’s lead representative on the Board of Governors, said that his father, owner Rich DeVos, still considers the Magic a great source of pride and he’s committed to putting a championship contender on the floor. The Magic have reached the NBA Finals twice during DeVos’ ownership of the team, losing both times in 1995 and 2009.

Said Dan DeVos: ``Dwight is so very important to this franchise. Certainly, keeping him in Orlando is something that we want to try and continue.’’

Martins said all of the pieces are in place for the Magic to once again contend for a championship this season, which will begin on Dec. 25 with Orlando at Oklahoma City in the nationally televised opener. Training camp opens on Dec. 9 with the Magic playing two exhibition games against the Miami Heat (Dec. 18 in Miami and Dec. 21 in Orlando). Martins feels that with Howard as the team’s anchor at center that Orlando can be a force in the Eastern Conference once again.

``The goals don’t change at all – and that’s to bring a championship to Orlando. We still have a commitment from our ownership that we’ll put a championship-caliber product on the floor,’’ Martins said. ``The goal remains to deliver a high-value, high-service product to our customers and clients. That’s what we’ve been doing working with Bob (Vander Weide) and we’ll continue to march on this season.’’

John Denton writes for OrlandoMagic.com. John has covered the Magic since 1997 and recently authored ``All You Can Be’’ with Magic center Dwight Howard. E-mail John at jd41898@aol.com.